Monday, November 12, 2012

Twin Shadow: Confess (2012)



Two years ago, I wrote this about Twin Shadow's debut album Forget:

Twin Shadow has the potential to be a giant if he just lets himself go a little bit. He has a powerful, sensual voice with ample emotional capability. I firmly believe he has some brilliant music in him and that we'll be hearing a lot about him in the next few years. And I'm willing to bet that'll be because he lets go of some of his attachment to the admittedly wonderful music he and I both listened to and loved growing up and strips this material down to its core.

I wasn't quite right. It's true that George Lewis, Jr. has now recorded one of the few great albums of 2012. But he does this not by stripping away his pop aspirations to find the wispy core underneath, but by amping up his mastery of hooks and taking on the swagger and confidence of a true star. It helps that he's shed the indie-rock pretensions and handled production himself, thus delivering on the vague promise of "Shooting Holes at the Moon" by bolting forth with something of universal and nearly automatic appeal. On the cover, which looks like something Belmondo would have stared longingly at in Breathless, he sneers at us from black leather and a garish blue backdrop; that photo somehow tells the same story as the record itself. Inspired by a new awareness of mortality, he's made a series of ten or eleven songs -- all of them brilliant and single-worthy, if we still lived in that time -- that provoke the heart, gut and loins with complex layers of accusation, the romantic pain of stale relations, the pining for redemption. And underneath it all is what? Is it soul music? Pop? Synth wankery? All of the above, conjuring up a time when there was little point to such stylistic separations and doing so with immediacy and irreverence. What can you say about its charged and emotional road-movie relationship chronicle semi-narratives set to popcraft of the highest order? Except: they're genuinely breathtaking.

Lewis puts on a cocky dreamcoat that's frequently resisted nowadays, like some highly introspective version of not Morris Day but Morris Day's licentious character in Purple Rain. "I don't give a damn about your dreams," he announces on "You Call Me On," and his dismissive eyerolls cast toward the women in his life are only a few steps removed from George Harrison's abusive-husband rant "You Like Me Too Much." Yet Lewis' brash ways mask an obvious, abstract artfulness, and the lyricism of these bad feelings is somehow enchanting in its complexity and lack of specifics -- a conversation joined midstream -- giving his lyrics an open-ended and mysterious edge that comes indisputably from a murky place, documenting forbidden thoughts with the relentless force of a documentarian. It helps, of course, that the music is uncommonly sexy, full of desire and bitingly delivered illicit intent.

"Golden Light" opens with a lonely echo, the sound of an empty tall-ceilinged mall or church, but that's the only point except the gaps between songs in which one isn't meant to be throttled back. That first cut is an dead ringer for Arcade Fire until you notice how much more Lewis' voice stretches and bends than Win Butler's. Tightly controlled and confident throughout, the singing voice that was already haunting on Forget achieves transcendence now. It's also impressively elastic without ever losing its specific character -- his croon can evoke Morrissey on "The One," Roland Gift on "Five Seconds," a pained and expressive Marvin Gaye on "When the Movie's Over." His self-production makes a world of difference; after sounding almost disembodied and completely separate from the music on the previous record, only on the hidden track "Mirror in the Dark" here does he emphasize such sonic messiness, and here to emphasize the alienation that sits like a specter at the end of the LP ("I've tried pleasure, I've tried pain"). Otherwise, he's the swooning balladeer and the steely-eyed dream operator.

Free of ironic trappings, Lewis marries his songs to an affected urgency familiar to anyone who listened to FM radio in the 1980s or has heard many soundtracks from the period -- but unlike so many of his peers, he appropriates only what he needs from this. This is no straight-ahead nostalgia trip, it's a recasting of old sounds in a refreshed and original context. It's backward-looking, in other words, without wallowing -- the abstract guitar bliss early on "You Call Me On" is just the bedrock of a gradually transformative track, and the night driving L.A. shit on "Five Seconds" doesn't strive for any touchstone in its tricky stop-start format and chilly "I'm not trying to make you cry" sentiment. But try not to feel like you're clubbing in some distant, freeflowing moment when that thing pares it down starkly to drums and vocals then builds back up. It's not just a throwback, it riddles something in us.

And okay, influences do abound. I even hear a little Midnight Oil on the nocturnal-to-sunrise "Run My Heart," and it would take a less fervent fanboy than me not to reach for the Depeche Mode comparisons on the gigantic tower of pounding snare programs in "Patient," which lays down its cards in a killer-powerful horn-filled chorus. And those Human League and/or Eurythmics synth trills straight from 1984 on the scarily hook-filled "When the Movie's Over" are confidently spun into now by vocals, sludge and melody, a good microcosm for the way the record works so instinctively and brilliantly.

Given all this, it seems a tad ironic that the centerpiece of Confess should be the song that sounds most like it could've come out of earlier Twin Shadow sessions. "I Don't Care" controls its demonic aural urges just long enough demonstrate how his songwriting has advanced since 2010 -- it's a brutal ballad about sexual pasts and mutual destruction, swirling around an alarming bridge with "Lookin' to get it 'cause your daddy's not home, so I came to you in the night" belted out like Lewis is losing his grip but gracefully, but reliant equally upon the burn-through-the-bullshit refrain about being danced "around the room while you lie to me." It's a long courtroom exchange of, yeah, confessions and finger-pointing but rendered as though it's the last of the romantic battles to be conquered. It feels like such a climactic and weighty revelation that the nearly perfect "Be Mine Tonight" can only serve here as its coda: a murky intonation from deep within that suddenly lurches into action halfway through. But its emotions are far less ambiguous, a mildly menacing lover's ballad and come-on about where to go if you can't go home, and the fact we notice that on first pass is a credit to how much of a master Lewis already is at communicating both musically and lyrically, and the extent to which we're completely his guests in this domain. Already.

For me, this assured cycle of addiction, loss, and decadence (pure horrorshow sleaze on "Beg for the Night," by the way) cuts to shreds something like M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming because it shows no human detachment from its pure showmanship. Every ounce of Lewis is in every second of this record; you can periodically hear the desperation thus warranted in his sultry voice... but only when he wants you to. It's really the kind of pop music you dream about; for all its archaic fixations on Vince Clarke synths and Minneapolis R&B gurgling, it lives so much in our moment and delivers such a sense of strength and fearlessness that, yeah, if you love music, any kind of pop music, you should probably hear it. Slide into these biting odes to dishonesty and regret, every one of which sounds more than a little like a future classic, and find out what all those disparate noises really amount to: "a sanctuary for your troubles and doubts."

Forget (2010)

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